The war that has been raging between the political leadership of ASTI and all those who have signed up to the terms of the Lansdowne Road Agreement is about to reach its conclusion over the coming month.
In May 2015, when the then general secretary of ASTI Pat King, along with president Philip Irwin, signed the agreement with the then Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan to resolve the outstanding issues on Junior Cycle reform, it appeared as if industrial peace had been achieved within the education sector.
Unfortunately for King and Irwin, they had underestimated the level of determination among some of the leadership within the ASTI organisation to hold out for total victory on the issues of pay and curricular reform.
Pat King has since departed the scene, leaving behind a document that outlines exactly where he expected the stance taken by the ASTI leadership to lead. We have now arrived at that place.
The junior cycle reforms are being implemented across all schools with three subjects now being rolled out to all First Years. The ASTI has banned its members from implementing the assessment element of English for those taking their Junior Cert in the subject in June 2017 and this ban will be widely adhered to. But cracks are beginning to appear within the ASTI itself and are becoming evident in the 378 voluntary secondary schools in which the ASTI union had total control up to this year.
In the 2016 Junior Cert exam, 20,220 students (38 per cent of all those studying Irish) were assessed by their own teachers for the optional oral Irish component across all three sectors – ETBI, Community & Comprehensive, and Voluntary Secondary. The ASTI directive banning its members from carrying out such assessments is clearly being ignored by some, given the ever increasing numbers taking the optional oral component.
Through FEMPI legislation put in place on September 1st 2016, the Department of Education & Skills (DES) has severely penalised all teachers working in voluntary secondary schools for the ASTI’s rejection of the Lansdowne Road agreement. However, DES was obliged, in the circular letter implementing the draconian measures associated with FEMPI, to make provision for a handful of TUI members who had remained with their union over the years following a job transfer to a voluntary secondary school.
The decision of these teachers to remain with the TUI was due in many cases to their wish to stay within their existing salary protection scheme which is union specific and can’t be transferred between unions, as is the case with health insurance. These TUI members working in voluntary secondary schools, which are traditionally dominated by ASTI, have recently signed the form on the final page of the DES circular 0045 securing for themselves the more favourable terms associated with the Lansdowne Road agreement.
Over recent years, many young teachers have chosen not to join any teaching union at all due to their anger at being placed on a lower pay scale than their older colleagues. In mid-September 2016, the INTO and TUI negotiated a deal with Minister Richard Bruton worth €20 million which goes a long way to removing the pay differential between younger and older teachers. This deal is only available to TUI and INTO members.
In a move that will have profound implications for both the ASTI and TUI, many of these non-unionised teachers working in voluntary secondary schools have, in the past few weeks, applied for and been accepted into membership of the TUI. The Department of Education has received up to 2,000 notifications of TUI membership from teachers in community and comprehensive and voluntary secondary schools in recent weeks.
Following the receipt of this form, the DES will pay these teachers both substitution and supervision (S&S) money, plus the additional salary recently negotiated for younger teachers if they were recruited post 2011, and will award them contracts of indefinite duration after two years rather than the four years required in the case of ASTI teachers before securing CID’s.
The extent to which the TUI is now represented in voluntary secondary schools is not as yet clear, but it is widespread. In one specific case that I am aware of, it encompasses at least 25 per cent of all teachers employed within that school. This will have massive implications for the long term representation of teachers at second level.
The TUI, out of inter-union solidarity, is doing nothing to encourage applications from these new members in voluntary secondary schools, but welcomes them when they do apply for membership and will represent them in any local disputes either personal or collective. At the moment they cannot represent them at national collective bargaining, but as such discussions involve all teacher unions around the one table this factor is academic.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Garda Representative Association (GRA) has now negotiated a deal to restore allowances to new recruits, which will entail their acceptance of the terms of the Lansdowne Rd agreement, the ASTI is still determined to hold firm and, single-handedly, to bring down the Lansdowne Rd agreement and stop the implementation of the assessment methods of the revised Junior Cert.
The ASTI will ballot its members this month and call on them to support proposals both to withdraw from Substitution and Supervision and to strike on the issue of younger teachers’ pay. It is likely that the residual loyalty of teachers to their union will see both ballots carried.
We will then face the prospect of ASTI members in individual schools on strike in November to win a salary concession for their younger teacher colleagues who, as TUI members, have already secured substantial increases from 1st January 2017, and who will be paid for the strike days if they advise their principals that they are available for work – even though the schools are likely to be closed for health and safety reasons.
It would appear that there is still a belief around the ASTI Standing Committee table, and in their bigger Central Executive Committee (CEC), that if they hold out for total victory the State will eventually buckle and concede to their demands. This belief is about to be sorely tested.
As this winter sets in, the prospect of 378 schools closing is not an attractive one. Moreover, I am certain that this action will not achieve its aim of getting the Government to concede to ASTI demands. Nor, in most cases, will it bring to crisis point the daily lives of families with children attending voluntary secondary schools. These students will simply get used to working from home for as long as it takes to resolve this matter.
I remember in my youth, during a protracted teachers’ strike, watching at home a TV series of English classes delivered by Gus Martin. That was back in the late 1960’s. In our current era of wall-to-wall social media, the range of material available online for students to study outside the classroom is unlimited. I am totally convinced that the resolve of ASTI members will buckle long before that of the Government, or the public for that matter.
What the ASTI executive doesn’t seem to realise is that if the Government concedes on even one issue on either Lansdowne Road or junior cycle reform, they will undermine every other trade union leader who sold these deals, often painfully, to their members. This will never happen, because the plans for the discussions to replace Lansdowne Road are already taking place behind the scenes, and negotiations will begin formally in the spring of 2017. Nothing will be done on the Government side to upset that process now that the ASTI is the last union holding out against the current agreement.
Pat King’s predictions to his executive last year of the disastrous implications of rejecting the deal which he and others had negotiated are now coming to pass. The ASTI has been out-manoeuvred through the collective actions of all the other parties who have skin in this game. The music has stopped and everybody else is seated comfortably as the ASTI looks around itself in confusion and bewilderment, wondering how its so-called strategy has landed it in this isolated position.
In the coming months, ASTI members throughout the country will be asking themselves if they have been well led or if the strategy adopted by their leaders was not misguided. There will only be one winner when the dust settles on this process – will it be the ASTI?